Wherever you look these days, it seems like someone is shooting archery. According to Jay McAninch, CEO of the Archery Trade Association, “Growth in archery is hard to measure but we do use the collections of Federal Excise taxes to track the changes from year to year. Since a small dip when the recession hit, we’ve been growing pretty well. Last fiscal year showed a 20+% increase.” This year it may even be better, as individual membership to USA Archery has increased nearly 20% since last December. The number of bowhunters is also growing. U.S. bowhunting license sales hit an all-time high in 2010 (an estimated 3.64 million). The 2010 season also showed the largest year-over-year growth (144,363 more than 2009) of any in the past 10 years.
Contrast the archery boom with annual hunting license sales, which while showing some growth in last couple years when the economy has forced people into new cost-cutting lifestyles, have declined by nearly five million a year since the 1970s. The glowing archery stats raise the questions of why are archery and bowhunting growing, and what can we learn from archery’s successes to help save hunting in general?
The hard facts are that hunters are a minority group, perhaps even an endangered species — only about 5% of the US public hunts each year. One explanation for the decline in hunting is demographics. National surveys consistently find that hunting participation declines as people move into urban areas, and the percentage of the public that lives in urban areas is increasing. As the average urbanite spends over 95% of their life indoors, for many folks these days hunting is done in supermarkets, with bargains as big game. If you don’t grow up getting your hands dirty and bloody to put food on the table, it’s harder to learn the lessons of life and death that can only be taught by hands-on experience.
There is another reason that I believe that hunting is waning. Non-hunters see few hunters as heroes on mainstream films and TV. That’s important because among the new species of urbanites, Homo sapiens indoorensis, a significant amount of time is spent watching electronic screens, which have become our new sense organs. Those screens and the stories they tell set the bar for who is a hero. When was the last time you saw a hunter hero on mainstream TV?
In my opinion, there are four factors that have helped the popularity of archery soar in recent times.
1) Archery in the Schools
One big reason for the dramatic increase in archery is the enormously successful National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP). The program started in 2002 when Tom Bennett, a Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) Commissioner, wanted archery to become a high school sport option. The KDFWR hosted an event to introduce the Kentucky Department of Education to archery. The KDFWR suggested that archery would be a popular sport with students, and that it might help improve classroom performance and decrease drop-out rates. The Department of Education agreed to help if the program was offered as a PE class in middle school. The rest is history. There are currently 10,400 schools in 47 states in the program. To date, over 10 million young people have participated in the NASP program. Studies show these kids are interested in bowhunting, and many NASP participants also are doing better in school.
2) Olympic and Paralympic Team Archers
The US Archery Olympic Team won a Silver Medal at the 2012 Olympic games in England this summer, the team’s first medal. In an interview with the LA Times, US Olympic archer Brady Ellison thanked the media for their coverage of US archery, and also praised feature films. “The movies have really raised the profile of archery and the media does a great job of keeping people interested,” he said. Ellison hit the bulls-eye.
The US Paralympic archers won a gold and a silver medal. Photos of 29 year-old Matt Stutzman, who took a silver without any arms, swept around the world, proving that anyone can do it if they have the will. Talk about a positive role model. In interviews with the media, Stutzman proudly told reporters that he enjoyed bowhunting for deer in his native state of Iowa. Camo hats off to Matt.
3) Archers in Mainstream Films
Television programs and feature films have shown enormous support for archery, not just by showcasing archers, but by portraying them as heroes. Without a doubt, the most famous on-screen archer-hero is Robin Hood, who has been played over the years by many famous actors: Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Cary Elwes, Sean Connery, Errol Flynn, etc. as well as in several TV series.
Howard Hill also put archery in the spotlight with his African safari movie Tembo (1952), where he bagged an elephant with a longbow. But that was a long time ago.
One of the most memorable screen archers is Burt Reynold’s character Lewis in John Boorman’s award-winning masterpiece Deliverance (1972), not so much for Lewis being a bowhunter, but for his shooting a backwoods sadist who is raping Ned Beatty’s character.
These are historic memorable archers, but today it seems like archery is everywhere on the big and little screens, most notably in the blockbuster hit The Hunger Games (2012). Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss Everdeen the archer, has become an icon. Olympian Kahtuna Lorig trained Lawrence for her role. One result is that Lorig and her fellow archery teammates also appear on the cover of a special-edition DVD for The Hunger Games. Lawrence has also made a number of television appearances demonstrating her skill with bow and arrow is not a special effect.
Some other recent screen archer heroes and heroines:
- Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia series, most recently 2010’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
- Brave (2012): Determined to make her own path in life, the fiery Princess Merida defies a custom that brings chaos to her kingdom. Granted one wish, Merida must rely on her bravery and her archery skills to undo a beastly curse.
- The Avengers (2012): Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye joins the wolf pack of superheroes as an archer. Grossing over $1.5 billion worldwide, this is the third highest growing film of all time.
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2002- 2003): Orlando Bloom, as Legolas Greenleaf, the elf, heads up the questing Fellowship’s marksmanship department.
- Hanna (2011): Saoirse Ronan portrays a teenage girl trained by her father to be an assassin. One of her skills is archery.
- Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the archer Mathayus in The Scorpion King (2002). A desert warrior rises up against to thwart an evil army destroying his homeland.
- Avatar (2009): In another of the highest grossing films of all time, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully takes his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora in exchange for spinal surgery. On site, Jake learns of greedy Parker Selfridge’s intentions of driving off the native Na’vi people in order to mine for the precious material. Jake attempts to infiltrate the Na’vi tribes. As he begins to bond with the tribe he falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri, who happens to be a good shot with a bow.
- Snow White and the Huntsman (2012): In a twist to the fairy tale, the Huntsman, who is ordered to take Snow White into the woods to be killed, winds up becoming her protector and mentor in a quest to vanquish the Evil Queen.
Okay, archery is in a lot of films, just how much influence can a film have that casts a positive light on an outdoor sport? Look no further than Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It. Made for $12 million, A River Runs Through It grossed $43,440,294 at the domestic box office, which isn’t bad considering that its widest release was in 1,080 theaters, only about 1/3 of the theaters that are involved with a big release today. Considering the price of admission in those days was probably about $5, this means that over eight million people saw the movie in the theaters, not bad considering there were only four million fly fishermen and women in those days.
Financial success wasn’t the only positive outcome from A River Runs Through It. The US Fish and Wildlife Service reports that there were over 100,000 more fly fishermen and women wading in the streams three years after the movie (the number has since gone down to close to four million again today). To keep numbers up, you need to have more than one program.
4) Archery in Mainstream TV
Yes, I know, there are a number of outdoor TV shows with archery. As good as some of them may be, these shows tend to be viewed only by the “saved.” If you want to use the media to help support hunting and archery, you have to get favorable shows in mainstream channels. Currently, one hot TV series that is reaching a lot of people and has numerous archers on screen is HBO’s bawdy spectacular Game of Thrones (2011-2012).
(I should note that another very popular TV series, Downton Abbey, has shown hunting, and on Morgan Spurlock’s Discovery Channel reality series I,Caveman, the “caveman” group bagged an elk with an atlatl, and no one on camera complained.)
This fall, there are two new TV series where archery is central.
Arrow on CW premieres October 10. The storyline: after a violent shipwreck, Oliver Queen was missing and presumed dead for five years before being discovered alive on a remote island. His family welcomes him home, but they sense Oliver has been changed by his ordeal. Oliver secretly creates the persona of Arrow – a bow-wielding vigilante – to right the wrongs of his family and fight the ills of society.
Revolution on NBC. Created by J.J. Abrams, this series is about a family trying to survive 15 years following a strange failure of all electrical devices in the world. Archery, as you might imagine, plays a central role in the series.
5) Celebrity Archers
One of the biggest boosts for archery in the last decade has come from Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis, who was sitting at home watching the 1996 Olympics and saw archers. Davis thought shooting arrows looked cool. She picked up a bow, began taking lessons, and in 1999, she almost qualified for the US Olympic team (she got as high as 13th in US women’s rankings). Geena Davis deserves a gold for her support for the sport.
In The Weather Man (2005), Nicolas Cage’s character David Spritz takes up archery as a “way to build his focus and calm his nerves,” and walks the streets with bow and arrow. In his personal life, Cage got hooked on archery. “When I started doing archery, that was the first time I really found something besides acting that I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ The archery in that movie was mine. I did all that. I really enjoyed it. I’d like to continue doing it when I get some time.”
American Indian actor Russell Means (Last of the Mohicans) has shot bow and arrow on- and off-screen all his life, but until 2008, when Russell participated in an SCI-sponsored workshop that I produced for “Hollywood Players” seeking new ways to get a better image for hunting and shooting on mainstream TV, Means had never shot a compound bow. Each workshop participant got a complimentary bow, and while he made jokes about the “white man’s bow,” Russell took the challenge and shot pretty well. He took the bow and arrows home with him and his whole family has since experimented with and enjoyed “white man’s archery.”
And then there’s one final celebrity archer in the limelight these days, Republican VP Candidate Representative Paul Ryan. Not only is Ryan unabashed standing up for archery, Ryan’s Secret Service code name is “Bowhunter.”
Archery’s made a place for itself in modern culture – let’s hope it maintains it for many years to come.
First image courtesy NASP, second image by James Swan